Most of my forensic cases begin with phone calls from attorneys or insurance adjustors. In this case the caller was an attorney from a large West Virginia law firm that handled the Appalachian area litigation for numerous large corporations.
Scene of the Crime
A coal miner was raising a heavy bundle of steel pipe on a fork lift. The load was well elevated when the steel strapping holding the bundle of pipe together failed and the pipe tumbled back onto the operator. The widow sued for wrongful death. My caller's plea was a familiar one: "Dr. Russell, can you please come down here and tell us what happened?"
I examined the strapping in the plaintiff's attorney's office. My tools were the naked eye, a ten power hand lens, and replicating tape. The latter is acetate which may be softened to a goo in acetone and used to replicate even the finest and most intricate markings on a solid surface. The process is very similar to the replicas children make of their palms and fingerprints using molten candle wax. The acetate replicas may be coated with a thin metal film (for electrical conductivity) and examined in the scanning electron microscope (SEM). The SEM provides high magnification with very high resolution of detail.
Steel strapping about a half inch in width was equipped with steel saddles which were meant to be crimped into the strap, providing a mechanical lock. I quickly saw that neither strapping nor saddles showed any significant deformation. Instead there were friction marks made as the strap slid out of the saddle. These marks were clearly visible with the naked eye and under the hand lens. There was no need for the SEM.
The Smoking Gun
Whoever clamped on the saddles applied only enough force to give a weak friction restraint. The dynamic forces of the lifted load were enough to cause the strap to slide out of the saddle, which in turn let the pipe free and led to the tragedy. Whether the crimping device was defective or the operator was derelict I do not know. But, the improperly bundled pipe was a disaster waiting for a chance to happen.
My client took me to a nice private club for lunch and an oral report on my findings. When I told him what I had found his jaw dropped and he fell silent. Finally he said: "Omigawd, Ken, don't send me a report, just send me a bill."
I submitted my bill, was paid, and figured that was the last time I would hear from that lawyer. I was wrong. The last thing a reputable lawyer wants from an expert is lies. He saw his client was at fault and went out and settled the case. This lawyer and his associates proceeded to retain me for twenty or so other cases over the years. Fees from that firm helped keep me solvent during my lean junior faculty years.
So why did the attorney fly me all the way to West Virginia to do a job that could have been done a lot quicker and cheaper by a local expert? There were two reasons. He liked my teaching experience, in particular my lecturing an introductory materials science course for some 300 freshmen. He figured this experience prepared me well for explaining technical matters to a judge and jury. He also liked the MIT affiliation, which would lend gravitas to my testimony.
I do have a lingering moral qualm. In an earlier column (DN CALAMITIES 08.18.03 http://rbi.ims.ca/4400-509) I praised plaintiff attorneys for helping chase patently dangerous products off the market. The plaintiff's attorney in this case was not of a type I would praise. He took on great loads of plaintiff cases, then sat back and waited for settlement offers. He did no investigation to determine the strength of his cases, and didn't even keep his clients informed. His clients would call opposing counsel (such as my client) to find out the status of the litigation.
I am sure that my client settled the case fairly cheaply, whereas a minimum of investigation by the plaintiff's side would have revealed the egregious defect in the strapping. I can't help feeling that with competent counsel the widow would have received a lot more money than she got. I did an honest job, and probably should leave it at that. But, even after 35 years the case still bothers me.